The National Junior College Basketball Tournament went on for so long on the drought-parched Kansas prairie last week that by the time it was officially over it seemed to have acquired a life of its own. Sometime between the opening game Monday morning and the final buzzer Saturday night, many of the nation's finest two-year college players scored a grand total of 5,373 points, committed 1,333 turnovers, took about a million of the most improbable shots you ever saw, hitting half of them, and played a lot of small d.
The tournament has been staged in Hutchinson, Kans. for 29 of its 30 years and is run by the American Legion post there. It is probably the only basketball tournament in America where you can see a halftime show consisting of three belly dancers in costumes that jangle like a trio of slot machines paying off, and then walk out into the street and be passed by an Amish family in a horse-drawn carriage. And where else but in Hutchinson could you find a troupe of grim-looking pre-adolescent girls—all under five feet tall—in jackboots, berets and armbands, goose-stepping their way across the 10-second line and into the hearts of a hundred former doughboys in glitter-trimmed overseas caps?
Hutchinson is a community of some 40,000 people, a considerable portion of whom are both over 60 and doggedly loyal to the basketball tournament. For many of them it is an annual social event, a kind of cotillion with sneakers and sweatbands. What they lack in hoop sophistication, they more than make up for in enthusiasm; witness one white-haired old lady who kept yelling things like, "Dance on his face, Flenoil!" and "Leroy, put the hurt on him, baby!"
This year 21 teams qualified for the trip to Hutchinson by winning regional competitions, and under the NJCAA's double-elimination format that meant that 35 games had to be played in six days. It was a killing regimen, with games starting at 11 a.m. and ending at 11 p.m. the first five days. One fan who tried to sit through the whole thing was found lying in a ditch on Sunday morning, semicomatose and attempting to make a religious sacrifice of a Spalding basketball.
No less than 19 junior college stars are playing in the NBA at present, and because some of them—e.g., Bob McAdoo, Artis Gilmore and Tom Henderson—passed through Hutchinson on their way to no-cut contracts and megabucks, the JuCo tournament has become a regular stop on the recruiting circuit for four-year schools. This year's gathering included Head Coaches Dave Gavitt of Providence, Eddie Sutton of Arkansas, John Thompson of Georgetown, Norm Stewart of Missouri, Bob Boyd of USC, Jerry Hale of Oral Roberts, and quite possibly every assistant east of Guam who ever owned a leisure suit.
When these coaches weren't hovering around dressing-room doors, ready to swoop down on anyone over 6'5" who was rumored to have a soft touch, they were talking among themselves about the Drake belly-button defense, the Temple blue-double-stack-man-pop-out-red-overload-step-up offense and the do-or-die-zone-trap press. Maybe all the years of wearing double-knits has begun to affect their speech. Perhaps the FDA might be willing to dress some of its laboratory rats in double-knit jumpsuits, then wait and see if it causes brain damage.
Coaches like Boyd and Thompson concede that since freshmen became eligible for varsity play five years ago, recruiting of junior college players has been done from positions of weakness, not strength. "Ideally, you want a kid who's going to be with you for four years," says Boyd. "But when your needs are more immediate, as ours are, a JC player can be an asset because of his ability to step right in and play."
In the past, certain conferences—particularly the Big Ten and the Pac-8—have tended to look down their noses at the junior colleges. Michigan, however, has proved that a Big Ten team can win with a player like Rickey Green, who led Vincennes into this tournament two years ago. Indiana's Bob Knight, one of the last champions of this sort of snobbism, reportedly is looking at JC prospects after a disappointing 14-13 season. "A lot of coaches talk about how they're philosophically opposed to taking junior college players," says Thompson. "Well, I'm opposed to it, too, but I'm here."
One of the teams that Thompson and the rest of the coaches came to see was the College of Southern Idaho, which has a reputation as a launching pad for talented players. Ricky Sobers, Ron Behagen, Tim Bassett and Tommy Barker—all of whom are now in the NBA—played for Southern Idaho, and both Sutton and Hale coached there. Moreover, the Golden Eagles were the defending national champions, winners of 48 games in a row, and ranked No. 1 in the country coming into the tournament.
Southern Idaho was also typical of the schools represented in Hutchinson. Junior colleges have suffered from the notion that they are used by the four-year schools as warehouses in which to store subliterate athletes until, by some magic, the grades of these non-scholars rise to the 2.0 mark that separates the golden boys from the non-predictors. Often enough it works that way, a major college coach referring a player with murky academic credentials to a certain junior college, in hopes that at the end of two years he will get his piece of property back. More frequently, however, the junior colleges provide an alternative for players who have been ignored by the big schools during their last year of high school. Kim Goetz, a 6'6" forward at CSI who graduated from high school with a 2.7 average, wasn't recruited by the schools he thought were worthy of his talents. A natural shooter with some defensive weaknesses, Goetz went to Southern Idaho to work out the kinks in his game, and is now being wooed by Las Vegas, Arkansas, San Diego State and Colorado.